The 16-year-old who spent four days in the hospital with COVID-19: 'I didn't want to die'

Brad Schmitt
Nashville Tennessean
(From Left to Right) Ben Britt, Madalyn Britt, 11, Elisabeth Britt, and Makaela Britt, 16, stand for a portrait in their front yard at the Britt household in Cumberland Furnace, Tenn., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Unlike most of her high school classmates, Makaela Britt wanted to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as there was one.

“I’m like, ‘We’ve gotta get the vaccine right now!’” 16-year-old Makaela said.

Her 95-year-old great-grandmother was staying in their Clarksville home as part of the family’s quarantine bubble. So Makaela certainly didn’t want to bring home a virus that could hurt their beloved “Nannie Lou.”

"I’d have panic attacks when we’d go to church, especially when people weren’t wearing masks," the teen said.

Makaela also didn’t want to get her parents, her kid sister, Maddie, or any of her friends sick either. She stayed anxious about it, especially when her mom hesitated after the vaccines became available for teens.

Her mom, Elisabeth Britt, is a school nurse who wondered what the long-term effects of the vaccines might be for teen girls. Mom, after some prayer and some research, eventually agreed to have Makaela vaccinated.

Elisabeth Britt and her daughter, Makaela, 16, who was hospitalized for four days with COVID-19, pose in their front yard in Cumberland Furnace, Tenn., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

But their pharmacy was out of the brand approved for teens.

More:Pfizer-BioNTech say low dose of its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for kids 5-11

Two other vaccination appointments got canceled because Makaela had allergy symptoms, which are similar to COVID symptoms.

And then, on her way to work at Plato's Closet, Makaela, with her mom, got a call that made their stomachs sink. Makaela's 8-year-old cousin tested positive for COVID — the same loving, clingy little girl that had been crawling all over Makaela two days earlier.

Makaela tested negative for COVID the day before, so her boss told her to come to work and wear a mask.

But Makaela, nauseated, vomited in the store bathroom an hour after getting there.

Little doctors could do to help

Two days later, she tested positive for COVID. A few days after that, Elisabeth Britt came home to find her daughter grey from a lack of oxygen in her blood. Makaela was admitted to crowded COVID floor of Vanderbilt children's hospital in Nashville.

Doctors said there was little they could do besides give Makaela oxygen and an anti-viral drug — and pray she gets better.

Makaela's father tears up when he thinks of that moment earlier this month. 

"I wouldn't know how to act if my baby girl wasn't with me anymore," he said softly.

As doctors and hospital CEOs talk about COVID's increasingly dangerous assault on children, Makaela and her parents agreed to share their story.

"It's serious," Makaela said.

"When I was in the hospital, I was scared. I didn’t want to die," she said, her head dropping. "Nobody wants to die."

A letter of support for Makaela Britt, 16, during her fight with COVID-19, is propped up on the fridge at the Britt household in Cumberland Furnace, Tenn., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

When Makaela got to the hospital, her mom told the emergency room staff Makaela already had been on steroids and had used an inhaler for days to try to raise her oxygen levels.

The nurse, concerned, told another nurse, "they've done all the things."

And that's when Makaela's mom got terrified. 

"I felt hopeless," her mother said through teary eyes. "I thought, is she going to decline? Is she going to end up on a ventilator?"

Related story:A California couple with five children died of COVID-19 before they could name their youngest

While Makaela was getting a chest X-ray, a doctor came out and told her mom the teen had pneumonia.

The only thing to do, the doctor said, is support her with oxygen and hope that's all she needs.

When the doctor walked away, she called her husband, and burst into tears. 

"It was my worst fear," Ben Britt said. 

The couple prayed together on the phone.

'I should've just done it'

The couple's other daughter, Maddie, had a headache later that day and tested positive for COVID, but the 11-year-old only developed mild symptoms.

For the next two days while hospitalized, Makaela felt weak, lost her appetite, made Facetime calls to her little sister and wondered when she would be strong enough to leave.

The worst part, she said, was hearing a toddler with COVID down the hall crying in pain.

"That screaming came from someone's daughter or son," she said. "That's what made me feel the saddest."

Back home, church members dropped dinners off for the family.

Makaela knew she was getting better when she was able to take a five-minute shower and not feel exhausted afterward.

Makaela Britt, 16, left, and her mom Elisabeth Britt, right, sit for a portrait in the girls bedroom where Elisabeth slept in the bed next to Makaela's while she fought COVID-19 at the Britt household in Cumberland Furnace, Tenn., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

After a night of sleep on her with no additional oxygen, she was sent home.

In hindsight, Makaela's parents — who are both vaccinated — wish they would've gotten their older daughter a COVID vaccine when it became available for teens.

"I should’ve just done it," Elisabeth said.

"There are a lot of people who are scared of the unknown. But at this point, I know if I had gotten her vaccinated, it would've been a lot milder than it was," she said.

"As a whole, I know that one sick kid doesn't seem like a lot. But to me and my family, it was my whole world."

Follow Brad Schmitt on Twitter: @bradschmitt.